Dave Gupta (third from right) of Broad Run High School in Loudoun County, Virginia won an award for his energy-saving light switch cover.© Loudoun County Public Schools
That’s more money than the district likely spends on textbooks and computers each year. While 15 percent of this waste comes from outdated equipment, one of every 10 energy dollars could be saved simply by turning off unneeded lights, shutting down computers and leaving personal space heaters at home, experts say.
"I’ve talked with superintendents who have already spent their energy budgets with three months left in the fiscal year," says John Carter, Honeywell’s director of energy services.
"The 25 percent figure is conservative, it’s probably higher than that in many, many schools," says Merrilee Harrigan, the director of education at the Alliance to Save Energy. "Schools have a lot of old stuff. We don’t often fund our schools very well, so that is a problem."
Edgar Hatrick, superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools in Leesburg, Virginia, says, "Money is still a wonderful motivator." In 12 years of the district’s energy-saving program, Hatrick says Loudoun County has been able to avoid $17 million in energy costs in its 68 schools. "That’s bought some textbooks and teachers," he adds.
Hatrick’s energy program, with help from an outside company, Energy Education in Wichita Falls, Texas, pays attention to items both big and small. The district completes regular energy audits, replaces old boilers before they become inefficient hogs, switches out single-pane windows, and even goes so far as to disconnect the lightbulbs in its soda machines to cut down on electricity costs. "We mind the pennies, nickels and dimes," Hatrick says.
Nationwide, that spare change can add up. There are 133,000 K-12 public schools. Together, energy costs for these buildings total $6 billion, so $1.5 billion could be saved.
There are some gross examples of misuse. In one elementary school in Oregon, a malfunctioning heating and ventilation system ran around the clock and on weekends. In the Charleston County [South Carolina] School District, the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system ran during the summer in many unused buildings to combat mold growth. The district has since devised a system that keeps humidity in check without unnecessarily cooling the empty buildings.
Chances are this type of waste isn’t news to the people who run your town’s schools. A 1995 nationwide survey of infrastructure needs shows nearly half of school officials reported at least one unsatisfactory environmental issue in their buildings, from heating to lighting to ventilation to air quality. More than 40 percent gave their schools an unsatisfactory energy-efficient rating.
So why aren’t these problems being fixed? It all comes back to money. The same survey estimates that it would cost $112 billion to repair, renovate and modernize the country’s schools.
But more and more school districts are finding ways to make these changes without big payments up front by signing performance contracts with companies such as Honeywell, Johnson Controls and Energy Education. These contracts allow big-money changes to be made right away, with the company bearing the cost. In return, the companies get to keep a percentage of the guaranteed energy savings over the life of the deal, usually 10 to 15 years.
"Our primary purpose is to educate children," says Forest Yocum, superintendent of the Southwest Licking School District near Columbus, Ohio. "Building upkeep has to take second fiddle. The community will want me to purchase textbooks instead of boilers."
Southwest Licking has 3,000 students and five buildings. Like many school districts, it was facing three problems at once: aging facilities, shrinking budgets and a growing student population. Through its contract with Honeywell, the school district was able to make $1.6 million in infrastructure improvements without spending any additional tax money. The district expects to save $175,000 in annual energy costs for the next 15 years.
The story is the same in the Twin Falls [Idaho] School District. A performance contract allowed the district to spend $4.8 million replacing lights, fixing roofs, updating HVAC systems and installing a building management system that can automate energy and heat usage throughout the district’s 11 buildings. Schools that post energy savings are guaranteed to get some of that money back in their operating budget, says Superintendent Wiley Dobbs.
The work, which took months to complete, "would have normally taken us a decade because of budget constraints," says John Miller, the district’s director of operations. Better yet, after the savings and publicity this program started, three neighboring districts have begun their own energy-saving programs, Dobbs says.
Some districts are even going beyond conventional upgrades. Twin Falls updated the geothermal system at one of its schools and Southwest Licking was able to add a small solar panel on its middle school. The solar panel has been integrated into the school’s science curriculum and has allowed Yokum to sell a small amount of energy back to the power company.
Besides bringing math and science education to life, schools are using the army of students to do some of their work. Students in Philadelphia mapped classroom temperatures and presented the data to the building engineer to fix their schools" uneven heating system.
Like many districts, Loudoun County tries to get students involved in conservation. It has a contest to design light switch covers to encourage turning unneeded lights off. "I"m convinced children can make a difference," Hatrick says. "I started wearing my seatbelt because my kids told me; I stopped smoking because my kids told me. I’m convinced that children in school will affect behaviors at home."
Homeowners complaining about waste in the schools should realize, however, that the government estimates the typical household could also save $450 on its $1,500 annual energy bill. That’s a potential savings of 30 percent.